TCF Award Winner—Nan Poliakoff Memorial Award: My Experience with Multisensory Structured Language Education

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by Cristina Peralejo

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

IN 2017, BC TEAL awarded me the Nan Poliakoff Memorial Award to pursue my interest in supporting students with special learning differences in adult ELL classrooms. In this article, I would like to share what knowledge I have gained from this experience and how this might inform my teaching practice in the future.

My Interest in Dyslexia

In terms of classroom practice, my interest in dyslexia and special learning differences began in Manchester, England in 2015 when I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the IATEFL conference where a series of workshops on special learning differences in the ESL classroom caught my attention. The first questions the presenter asked us were completely unexpected: “How’s the temperature in the room? How’s the lighting?” She then went on to explain how people with special learning differences may have difficulty focusing in the classroom due to being unable to block out certain sensory stimuli. I immediately recalled my partner, who is dyslexic, explaining how fluorescent lighting in classrooms gave him migraines.

These experiences have naturally made me wonder about those few students I encountered in the classroom who also seemed to perceive the world of literacy through different eyes. They caused me to question if I was perhaps doing a disservice to my students because I had adopted a one-size fits all approach to my teaching of reading and writing. Moreover, some aspects of the ELT practice added to the complexity: How much of their challenges could be attributed to their English skills? And how much to a special learning difference? And most of all, I wondered how I could provide a better education for all the students in my classroom—dyslexic and non-dyslexic alike.

I decided that I wanted to gain more knowledge of this. I knew that I wanted a systematic, proven approach to addressing special learning difficulties in the classroom. For this reason, after receiving the Nan Poliakoff Memorial Award in 2017, I chose to pursue Orton-Gillingham (OG) training in Multi Structured Language Education (MSLE). I would like to take this opportunity to share what knowledge I have gained from this experience and how this might inform my teaching practice in the future.

What is Multi-Sensory Language Education?

The Foundations of MLSE is a 30-hour accredited course that enables educators to gain basic theories of the OG approach and serves as a prerequisite for future OG practitioner training. MSLE is one approach on how to help readers of all ages with language processing issues. It is an approach which relies on all senses—visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic—to present and reinforce the target content. Some of the concepts that are taught are very similar to those taught in the language classroom: phonology, morphology, syllabification, syntax and semantics. Still, others are different: penmanship, orthography and phonological awareness.

One of the most fundamental principles underlying OG training is that of direct individual instruction—educators do not assume that students will learn concepts inferentially; there is a strong emphasis on the systematic teaching of phonics and linguistics. As an EAL professional, this resonated with me. After all, isn’t this the very essence of our jobs? From the very beginning of the course, however, I found myself at a loss. As someone who prides themselves in illuminating unknown concepts to my learners, I realized that when it came to teaching phonics and linguistics, I was still very much in the dark. On our first night, I felt nervous as we were given a test on concepts I had glossed over in a linguistics class once upon a time. There we were, a room full of instructors, scratching our heads over words like digraphs, trigraphs, bound morphemes, graphemes, and breves.

And things did not get much better for me when we hit the section devoted to orthography. Often in my practice, I’ve found myself sitting with a student and weakly making excuses: “Well, English has a lot of exceptions and the rules are very complicated.” In this course, we spent a good couple of hours relearning the basic rules of doubling letters, dropping letters, and changing letters based on grapheme position or sound. Our trainer proved to us over and over again that only 13-15% of the English language is irregular and thus there is only a short list of words that students must commit to memory as orthographic rules do not apply to them.

What did I take away from this experience?

Despite struggling with these unfamiliar linguistic concepts, I appreciated the fact that OG is a pedagogical method suitable not just for dyslexic students, but for all EAL students. I like the idea that by adjusting my approach for teaching I could benefit everyone in my classes by addressing inconsistencies in knowledge of reading and phonics that all EAL students have—providing a baseline for the whole class to build on. For example, I currently teach a reading class where many of my students can recognize words they read, but are very shy to pronounce the words out loud without first listening to their electronic dictionary recite the word for them. What would it be like if I could teach them how to approach the pronunciation of a word like “gender”, so that they could feel confident in trying to pronounce it without the use of electronic aids?

As well, I became intrigued by some concepts that I could see being immediately implemented the EAL classroom. For example, I liked the way that the OG approach emphasizes teaching sounds rather than letters: differentiating the sounds of the English language by separating phonemes /t/, consonant blends /tr/, consonant digraphs /tch/ and vowel diagraphs /ou/. This has already had a very positive effect on my classroom as my students are able to directly grasp the connection between sound and spelling. In the spirit of “direct individual instruction”, this approach just makes sense to me.

Lastly, I was happy to walk away with some informal tools that could help me to identify students who are struggling in my classroom. One of them deals with phonological awareness while the other addresses reading fluency. Although these can in no way be used to provide an official diagnosis of dyslexia, they can be useful measures to help me gauge which area a student is struggling in to provide additional support. For instance, in terms of reading fluency, I gain peace of mind knowing that I have a tool which I can use to identify students to officially recommend for further psycho-educational testing—an expensive but worthwhile option if they wish to continue further education in a university setting. Additionally, after using the phonological awareness assessment with several of my students, a pattern emerged of common difficulties for my adult EAL learners, regardless of whether or not they identified as being dyslexic: syllable segmentation, final sound detection, medial sound detection and phoneme segmentation. This is yet another piece of evidence that highlights how the OG principles would be useful not just for students with learning difficulties, but for all students.

In conclusion, learning the OG approach has made me question many well-established teaching practices and ideas that I had taken for granted. While this has been difficult at times, it has also been invigorating and exciting as I feel that I am empowering my students both with and without special learning differences through knowledge of these rules. While we may assume that they will acquire them naturally, it is not always the case; and in order to support all students in our classroom, it is important for us as teachers to gain more knowledge of concepts that we may have forgotten.

Biographical Information (From the Fall 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Cristina Peralejo completed her BA in Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, and her MEd in TESL at UBC. For 9 years she has been a member of the ELI team where she has enjoyed a variety of new challenges in instruction, materials development and administration.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Peralejo, C.  (2017, Fall). My Experience with Multisensory Structured Language Education. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/TEAL-News-Fall-2017.pdf

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